Niyo: Tigers paying the price for success -- and failure

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Dave Dombrowski: "We are happy with our starting pitching and are not in pursuit of any free-agent starting pitching."

Max Scherzer's departure from Detroit, 10 months in the making and tens of millions of dollars found wanting, was only a surprise if you refused — understandably — to take Tigers president Dave Dombrowski at his word the last few months.

Or if you forgot why Scherzer, a smart guy with an economist's love for numbers, had hired super-agent Scott Boras in the first place.

But as the details of Scherzer's record-setting contract with the Washington Nationals emerged Monday — the free-agent deal is reportedly worth $210 million over seven years, with some $50 million in deferred payments — it's easy to see why the Tigers were out of the mix.

And harder still to say they're still in it as championship contenders, which if you'll follow the logic they'll surely begin twisting, might actually be a good thing for the organization.

The Tigers couldn't win a World Series as one of the favorites. Now they'll try doing it as a much longer shot, with the latest Las Vegas odds pegging them as the fourth- or fifth-best bet in the American League, right alongside the Chicago White Sox, and just behind the Cubs (!) overall.

They couldn't win with a bull's-eye on their back, so now they'll try with a chip on their shoulder. And it's one I guarantee we'll start hearing a lot about when the Tigers' Winter Caravan gets rolling this week.

That's not much of a silver lining, trading expectations for a built-in excuse, especially for a fan base that has been tortured and then teased for too long here in Detroit. But unless Mike Ilitch is hastily ordering Dombrowski to ante up for another blockbuster — free-agent pitcher James Shields probably got a little richer Monday as well — that's where they find themselves, stuck in the middle with you.

Smaller ball

Like it or not, that's the sales pitch Dombrowski has been throwing out there — a circle change, if you will — for some time. It has been the underlying motive in a series of offseason moves for the four-time defending A.L. Central champs, reconstituting their pitching rotation while trying to plug some holes behind it and prop up season-ticket sales.

And it's one Dombrowski reiterated as he made the rounds Monday, telling The Detroit News, "I think we've made it clear that we have not been pursuing the (Scherzer) situation. We've said it numerous times."

Added Dombrowski: "We are happy with our starting pitching and are not in pursuit of any free-agent starting pitching."

That may be wise, at this point, waiting instead for the trade deadline or next winter's deep free-agent pool. Shields, the next-biggest name on the market, won't get Scherzer money, but he's still going to get too much from some team, even though he's 33 and coming off his eighth consecutive season of 200-plus innings. The right-hander reportedly turned down a five-year, nine-figure offer from another team, and if that's true, the Tigers would be smart to move along.

Just as they ultimately did with Scherzer, making what now looks to be a pitiable offer last spring (six years, $144 million), then trading for David Price as a short-term insurance policy last summer.

They've gone down this road before with Boras, most recently when the king's ransom was for a fellow named Prince, and they're still feeling the effects of that bout of buyer's remorse.

Boras finds weakness and exploits it, and in the Nationals he had a personnel boss with ties to his client — GM Mike Rizzo was largely responsible for drafting Scherzer in Arizona in 2006 — as well as a direct line to an 89-year-old billionaire owner desperate to end a city's 90-year championship baseball drought. It's not hard to see the symmetry there, is it?

Wishing and hoping

The Tigers have tried this gamble, too, handing a 30-year-old pitcher a record-shattering seven-year contract and hoping a ring now will make up for the ringing in their ears later.

But they squandered their best shot with that ALCS implosion in 2013, and now they're left with fingers crossed. Hoping Justin Verlander can regain something resembling his once-dominant form, especially now that he's due to make $28 million annually until 2020. Hoping whatever ailed Anibal Sanchez last season is history, especially now that he'll be counted on in ways he never was before. And hoping that wherever Price's future lies he pitches like an ace in Detroit from start to finish in 2015, but particularly in the late summer and fall.

The Tigers will be counting on newcomers like Alfredo Simon to pick up the slack from the departure of Max Scherzer.

They're also hoping the arms they've added don't leave everyone longing for the ones they let go. But that seems unlikely, unless Shane Greene becomes the Scherzer of this latest three-way deal between the Tigers, Yankees and Diamondbacks, or Alfredo Simon refuses to regress the way most expect.

"I still think we have an extremely good rotation," manager Brad Ausmus insisted Monday. "People love to play the game of baseball on paper. It's not how it works."

No, but the best-laid plans are drawn up on paper. And while the Tigers' payroll still will dwarf most others this season, their rotation doesn't look like it will. In fact, it might be second- or third-best in their own division, behind the White Sox and possibly the Indians.

They can't cry poor. That's not an option for the Tigers, not with all they've invested. But this is the price you pay when you go for broke and come up empty. You're left to pick up the pieces, and try to make them seem whole.